Let’s be honest, all of the people currently gracing our planet will have to decide whether or not they will forgive someone for hurting them at some point in their lifetime. But what exactly is forgiveness?
Interestingly enough the dictionary doesn’t give us a clear definition of the term, though it does list a hefty number of synonyms: pardon, absolution, exoneration, remission, dispensation, indulgence, clemency, and mercy. None of which truly capture the essence of what forgiving means.
Perhaps this has to do with the fact that forgiveness is subjective. There’s no denying that it can mean different things to different people. Furthermore, there are different types of forgiveness to consider: forgiveness for the self, forgiveness for others, and forgiveness of situations. And even within these three categories there are subcategories that further segment it.
For example, Charles Griswold, Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy at Boston University and author of the book, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, believes that in the case of interpersonal forgiveness, the transgressor needs to apologize to the offended party to be truly forgiven.
He refers to this as bilateral forgiveness; a reciprocity that is “responsive to moral ideals.” But Griswold adds that if these conditions are lacking—the other is unrepentant—the victim should not hold onto vengeful anger and, instead, find “self-regarding” reasons to let it go, even if this requires therapeutic help to achieve that end.
We have to keep in mind, however, that the transgressions will vary in scope from small misdemeanors to serious offenses. Still, the offended individuals—or victims—will ultimately have to choose whether or not to bestow their forgiveness on the transgressors. In many ways, forgiveness is more than just not seeking revenge; it’s actually a metabolic process.
Although it’s much easier said than done, science suggests that forgiveness is something that can greatly benefit the forgiver’s overall physical and mental health. Think of forgiveness as being related to catharsis. The dictionary defines catharsis as a “discharge of pent-up emotions so as to result in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent relief of the condition.”
We know that holding a grudge against someone increases our feelings of anxiety and stress, weakens our immune systems, and elevates the chances of psychological distress. Furthermore, we know that anxiety, stress and depression are symptoms of mental disorders. And we also know that they contribute to high blood pressure, which actually impacts our cognitive function.
According to Willow Lawson, editor of Psychology Today: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that high blood pressure, or hypertension, is at the root of much cognitive decline that has previously been attributed to aging. The more that scientists scrutinize brain function, and especially memory, the more they conclude that we have the ability to keep our memory and spirit strong well into old age.”
But forgiveness can also counteract traumatic experiences. Take a couple is dealing with infidelity. Clearly the disappointment and stress that results from having a cheating partner can cause a person immeasurable pain that is both physical and psychological. A 2014 study suggests that in relationships, forgiveness can in some ways mediate the trauma that is caused by infidelity.
“We defined personal growth as posttraumatic growth (PTG) and examined the relationships of differentiation of self from family of origin, trauma, forgiveness, and PTG in a sample of individuals remaining in a relationship in which infidelity had occurred. Results showed that differentiation was positively related to forgiveness levels and also moderated the relationship between trauma and forgiveness. The only significant predictor of PTG, however, was forgiveness.”
We know that strong relationships tend to provide a vast number of health benefits, from emotional and mental support to a prolonged and better quality of life. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, while stress tends to destroy our bodies and reduce the quality of our lives, forgiveness revives us and allows us to live healthier.
Charles Griswold says it best: “Why forgive? What makes it the commendable thing to do at the appropriate time? It’s not simply a matter of lifting the burden of toxic resentment or of immobilizing guilt, however beneficial that may be ethically and psychologically. It is not a merely therapeutic matter, as though this were just about you. Rather, when the requisite conditions are met, forgiveness is what a good person would seek because it expresses fundamental moral ideals. These include ideals of spiritual growth and renewal; truth-telling; mutual respectful address; responsibility and respect; reconciliation and peace.”
Independent of whether or not you agree with Griswold’s stance on conditional forgiveness, there’s no denying the healing benefits of forgiveness. As the late author, ethicist and theologian Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”